Nearly four years on from the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the traditional American public education system remains in disarray. The virus exposed longstanding structural flaws in public schools’ capacity to respond to such crises, particularly thanks to the overwhelming influence of teachers’ unions. Now the unions are trying to hide the damage they have wrought by pushing elected officials to reject objective standards and school choice.

In Chicago, leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and their peers nationally are pressing districts and states to end testing. They claim that doing so will reduce student stress, promote teacher autonomy, and end “racist” practices; their real motivation is to eliminate quantitative accountability standards for poorly performing teachers. Emboldened by the election of former CTU organizer Brandon Johnson as mayor (my opponent in last year’s race), these efforts threaten to bring back what was once called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”—and not just for students.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is already moving to a “soft” scoring and assessment system for measuring school performance rather than individual student performance. Its new policy for sizing up schools would expand the types of evaluation metrics, placing greater emphasis on how schools promote students’ social and emotional development. While factors such as staffing levels, curriculum, and other district investments are important in evaluating school performance, the move to diminish student outcomes in evaluations is the institutional partner to grade inflation for students.

CPS is following national trends and rapidly abandoning teaching standards, which is evident from teacher evaluations. Despite the dramatic drop in student scores, CTU walkouts, and union-forced remote learning, CPS teachers received stellar reviews. According to the Illinois Report Card, the state’s annual assessment of public school districts, 100 percent of CPS teachers in 2021 were “evaluated as excellent or proficient by an administrator or other evaluator trained in performance evaluations.” That’s up from 98 percent in 2020, 91.4 percent in pre-Covid 2019, and 85.6 percent in 2018. Some students, meantime, remained out of the classroom for nearly two years. It’s obvious, then, that teacher evaluation scores and student performance are totally disconnected.

It’s also clear that the accusations of racism hurled by teachers’ unions and their allies are a pretext for an agenda that seeks to return schools to a time when the lack of student achievement carried no consequences for failing schools and teachers. Remedying such “racism” means inflating evaluations and grades, skipping testing, and reestablishing the practice of social promotion—moving students to the next grade, even if they fail to learn the skills of their current grade. Conveniently, these measures also shield poorly performing teachers and union leaders from the need to achieve results for students.

Even if the unions get their way in traditional public schools, they still face the threat of competition from private schools and alternative models of public education, such as charter schools. The unions are therefore working to limit both private and public school choice.

United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and other leaders of union locals have accused school-choice supporters of being advocates for racist and segregationist policies. “Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” Weingarten said in 2017. CTU president Stacy Davis Gates is even less subtle. She labels proponents of school choice fascists. Her union leveraged its war chest to lobby successfully against Illinois’ Invest in Kids Act, which would have provided tax credits for private funding to scholarships for low-income students. Meantime, she enrolls her own son in a private Catholic school, in apparent recognition that parents like her should have access to better schools for their kids.

Members of the Chicago Board of Education, appointed by Mayor Brandon Johnson, recently approved a resolution that would transition CPS away from “privatization and admissions/enrollment policies,” the latter of which give students options to attend high-performing, public selective-enrollment schools. (By “privatization,” they really mean public charter schools.) The CTU leadership called the plan a “step in the right direction” and decried the “deep inequity” of selective-enrollment schools.

This is complete hogwash. In Chicago, charter schools receive over $8,600 less in funding per pupil than traditional public schools do—even with 88 percent of the students they serve living in poverty, compared with 78 percent of the total public school population. Of the 11 selective-enrollment high schools, nine receive less funding than the district average. Make no mistake: the school district intends to deny students and families even public school options by phasing out public charter schools and selective-enrollment magnet high schools.

Let’s be clear on who will be harmed by the CTU’s attack on public school choice: poor black and Latino students. Over the past two decades, it’s primarily the black middle class that has been leaving CPS. According to district data, black enrollment in CPS is less than half of what it was in 1999–2000, a staggering decline from 227,000 to approximately 113,000 students. During this time, 266,188 blacks left Chicago, overwhelmingly low- and middle-income families with school-age kids.

The families remaining increasingly see public charter schools as an alternative to failing and often unsafe neighborhood schools. Out of the more than 54,000 children attending public charter schools, 96 percent are black and Latino, and 86 percent come from low-income households. Of the more than 12,000 students attending magnet schools, over 70 percent are black and Latino, and over 50 percent come from low-income families.

The answer to massive student learning loss won’t come from those who helped create (and worsen) the problem in the first place. American schoolchildren—already well behind their peers in other industrialized countries—would be ill-served by eliminating testing and weakening teacher evaluations.

We already know what works: quantitative evaluations for students, teachers, and schools, and providing parents with options for leaving failing traditional public schools. Whether political leaders like Mayor Johnson will do what’s right by Chicago’s public school students is far less certain.

Photo: SDI Productions/iStock


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